The History of the Guillotine

An illustration of guillotines in use

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During the 1700s, executions in France were public events where entire towns gathered to watch. A common execution method for a poor criminal was quartering, where the prisoner's limbs were tied to four oxen, then the animals were driven in four different directions ripping the person apart. Upper-class criminals could buy their way into a less painful death by hanging or beheading.

The guillotine is an instrument for inflicting capital punishment by decapitation that came into common use in France after 1792 (during the French Revolution). In 1789, a French physician first suggested that all criminals should be executed by a “machine that beheads painlessly."

Portrait Of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin 1738-1814
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Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin

Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin was born in Saintes, France in 1738 and elected to the French National Assembly in 1789. He belonged to a small political reform movement that wanted to banish the death penalty completely. Guillotin argued for a painless and private capital punishment method equal for all the classes, as an interim step towards completely banning the death penalty.

Beheading devices had already been used in Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Persia for aristocratic criminals. However, never had such a device been adopted on a large institutional scale. The French named the guillotine after Doctor Guillotin. The extra 'e' at the end of the word was added by an unknown English poet who found guillotine easier to rhyme with.

Doctor Guillotin together with German engineer and harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt, built the prototype for an ideal guillotine machine. Schmidt suggested using a diagonal blade instead of a round blade.

Leon Berger

Noted improvements to the guillotine machine were made in 1870 by the assistant executioner and carpenter Leon Berger. Berger added a spring system, which stopped the mouton at the bottom of the groves. He added a lock/blocking device at the lunette and a new release mechanism for the blade. All guillotines built after 1870 were made according to Leon Berger's construction.

The French Revolution began in 1789, the year of the famous storming of the Bastille. On July 14 of the same year, King Louis XVI of France was driven from the French throne and sent into exile. The new civilian assembly rewrote the penal code to say, "Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed." All classes of people were now executed equally. The first guillotining took place on April 25, 1792, when Nicolas Jacques Pelletie was guillotined at Place de Grève on the Right Bank. Ironically, Louis XVI had his own head chopped off on January 21, 1793. Thousands of people were publicly guillotined during the French Revolution.

The Last Guillotine Execution

On September 10, 1977, the last execution by guillotine took place in Marseilles, France, when the murderer Hamida Djandoubi was beheaded.

Guillotine Facts

  • Total weight of a guillotine is about 1278 lbs
  • The guillotine metal blade weighs about 88.2 lbs
  • The height of guillotine posts average about 14 feet
  • The falling blade has a rate of speed of about 21 feet/second
  • Just the actual beheading takes 2/100 of a second
  • The time for the guillotine blade to fall down to where it stops takes 70th of a second

Prunier's Experiment

In a scientific effort to determine if any consciousness remained following decapitation by the guillotine, three French doctors attended the execution of Monsieur Theotime Prunier in 1879, having obtained his prior consent to be the subject of their experimentation.

Immediately after the blade fell on the condemned man, the trio retrieved his head and attempted to elicit some sign of intelligent response by "shouting in his face, sticking in pins, applying ammonia under his nose, silver nitrate, and candle flames to his eyeballs." In response, they could record only that M Prunier's face "bore a look of astonishment."

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Guillotine." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). The History of the Guillotine. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Guillotine." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).